Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Theory must rule practice, and yet it cannot. Thinking is called to assume and to represent Being, but thinking is always preceded and exceeded by Being. This very excess of Being with respect to thinking – transcendence —- reason necessarily configures along two axes of significance or of free signifying that we may call “vertical” and “horizontal.”

The vertical axis is determined by the self-affirmation of the thinking agent himself or herself: the affirmation of the rule of reason, general and impersonal, merges with the concrete affirmation of the goodness of the thinker’s own concrete being, of his soul. Vertical transcendence enjoys itself and would be satisfied in its superiority over mere necessity and instrumentality; it is good in itself, it is noble. The freedom of this transcendence is the proud rule of reason, its positive affirmation of its own nobility. This freedom is pagan.

The horizontal axis of transcendence emerges from reason’s awareness that it is called by something or someone other than itself, that thinking is responsible to what is irreducibly other. This awareness opens thinking to the claims of all other human beings and to non-representable possibilities or to the possibility of what is non-representable, what cannot be grasped by reason. Horizontal transcendence hungers and thirsts for justice, a justice it does not possess, and therefore does not grasp or represent, a possible unlimited and universal justice projected upon a possible future. The freedom of this transcendence is humble openness to the possibility of a justice it does not claim to possess or represent, and thus its negation of present, concrete, prideful representations and affirmations of nobility. This freedom is biblical.

Neither of these axes of transcendence, vertical and horizontal, can signify without the other; there is no place for meaning in either line but only in some surface opened up by the tension between them. The freedom of self-affirmation would collapse into mute sameness or self-identity without some openness to a possibility it does not already represent, and the freedom of openness to otherness and possibility would be no one’s freedom and have no meaning in any actual world if it were not affirmed by an actual human agent who possessed some sense of his own concrete goodness or nobility as representable within some actual world.

Reason’s responsibility is therefore to hold open some such surface of meaning within the space defined by these axes. Alexis de Tocqueville came to understand this responsibility by reflecting on the threat to meaningful, humane transcendence posed by the modern attempt to synthesize reason’s pride with its openness to universal possibility, to collapse the tension between the two axes of transcendence. He named this threat the abolition of “the laws of moral analogy.”

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles